Teen Drug Abuse Statistics & Facts


Drug abuse can inflict severe — sometimes permanent — damage on your teen’s mind, body and future. Though drug use may begin casually, your teen may not realize that they risk addiction. If your child is abusing illicit substances, there is hope for recovery through treatment.

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12 min read

Illicit Drugs

In 2009, almost one million Emergency Room visits involved an illicit drug, either alone or in combination with other types of drugs.
Illicit Drug Use Among Teens

Should I Worry About My Teen Doing Drugs?

In many cases, drugs in the 21st century have become more potent than they were a generation ago. Access to drugs in schools has also gotten easier, now ubiquitous on campus grounds and at teen social events.

Several commonly abused drugs among teens are even found in their own households and may even be prescribed to them by their doctor. In fact, 20% of parents say they’ve given their teen a prescription drug that wasn’t prescribed for them. And sometimes, a seemingly casual act like this can carry many long-term implications.

A drug problem may be something your teen never has to go through, but history has proven that drugs can affect anyone at anytime. In fact, the teen drug use statistics are hard to ignore. Studies have shown that 40% of 12th graders, 30% of 10th graders and 13% of 8th graders have used a drug in the past year. This adds up to millions of young people. Even if your teen doesn’t use drugs, it’s likely they at least knows someone who does.

What Are the Most Common Drugs Among Teens?

assorted drugs on tableDrugs are everywhere. They can be in natural and synthetic forms and it seems that every year we hear of a new one that’s all the rage among teens. Some of the more popular drugs have been around for decades or even centuries, while some others have just cropped up in recent years. Treatment centers see teenage patients struggling with all kinds of drugs, from the “big names” you hear about your whole life, to lesser known substances that can be equally as addictive and dangerous. As a parent, it’s important to stay informed of the drug landscape. Stay aware of what’s out there and how it might affect your teen if they experiment with it.

The most commonly abused illicit drugs among teens include:

  • Marijuana
  • Synthetic marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Ecstasy (also known as Molly)
  • Inhalants
  • LSD (also known as acid)
  • Mushrooms

Prescription drugs are commonly abused by teens and are worth keeping an eye on. If these medications aren’t being taken from your medicine cabinet at home, your teen can score these pills from drug dealers just like they would illicit drugs, can steal them from friends or family members or can even develop a problem after being prescribed them straight from a doctor.

Some of the most commonly abused prescription medicines include:

  • Adderall
  • Ritalin
  • Vicodin
  • Xanax
  • Oxycodone
  • Codeine
  • Ambien

Drug use is starting earlier than ever and the variety of drugs being used is expansive. Statisticall speaking, among 12th graders, 35% have smoked weed in the past year, and 7% have used Adderall. Among 8th graders, while the percentages drop to 12% and 1% respectively, it’s still representative of a large group of teenagers across the country who are at least familiar with addictive drugs.

There’s also an added danger when it comes to drugs that are adulterated. Drug dealers often try to improve the potency and make other cosmetic modifications to their supply by lacing their drugs with substances that can have devastating effects on a teen when combined with the original drug.

How Are Drugs Used?

Drugs can enter the body in many ways and some even have multiple methods of delivery. How your teen might take their drugs depends on the form of drug (e.g. powder, liquid, pill, plant, etc.) and personal preference. Marijuana is smoked or baked into food. Cocaine is snorted up the nose or formed into a rock material to then be smoked (i.e. “crack”). Pills are typically swallowed or crushed into powder and snorted. Heroin is injected into the veins via a needle and can also be snorted. Psychedelics (e.g. LSD and mushrooms) are ingested. Inhalants — household items like cleaning products containing noxious chemicals — are breathed in, or “huffed.”

Naturally, the differing types of drugs and methods of use have varying effects on the body, all of which can cause harm in unique ways. Just because someone avoids needles or snorting chemicals up their nose doesn’t put them at any less at risk for the hazardous side effects of drug use.

Why Would My Teen Use Drugs?

teens dealing drugsWhile teen drug use is difficult to predict, by studying the research gathered over the years, we’re able to identify some underlying causes that may increase the likelihood of use. These factors can include:

  • Genetics
  • Abusive parents or lack of parental involvement
  • Traumatic family events (divorce, death, etc.)
  • Choice of friends
  • Mental or emotional disorders
  • Gender
  • Nationality
  • Family income level
  • Location

Males are more likely than females to be drug users, although not by a substantial amount. Growing up in neighborhoods where more drugs are present — or in parts of the country (or world) with high rates of drug abuse — will increase a teen’s exposure to drugs. According to one study, teens in high school that are from wealthy families are more likely to abuse drugs than their less well-off peers. This could be due to disposable income, disconnected family structure and added pressures to succeed. Kids using drugs in middle school, however, tend to come from less wealthy families.

Regarding race, drug use statistics for those aged 12 or older demonstrates the breadth of drug use:

  • 17.4% identify as mixed race persons
  • 14% are Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
  • 12.3% are American Indian or Alaska Native
  • 10.5% are black
  • 9.5% identify as white
  • 8.8% are Hispanic
  • 3.1% are Asian

A teen’s decision to experiment with drugs is often a perfect storm of these various factors. But in some cases, even the least likeliest of teens will dive into drug use, simply for the thrill or to stoke their curiosity. Little do they know that one night of “trying something new” can potentially trigger a lifetime of problems.

What Are the Effects of Drug Use?

Drugs can destroy a life, making short order of it in many cases. The harder the drug and the longer your teen abuses it, the more extensive the risks. There is no simple drug problem. Even the “lesser” drugs carry a serious weight and can have a domino effect in many areas of your teen’s life. Young people may feel invincible and immune to the dangers of substance use. The truth is that they’re not.

The risks of teen drug use can include:

  • Serious illness or injury
  • Suspension or expulsion from school
  • Being fired from jobs and having trouble getting hired in the future
  • Being arrested and/or sent to juvenile detention
  • Losing friends and excommunication from family
  • Going broke and getting deep in debt
  • Deviant sexual behavior, rape and sexually-transmitted diseases
  • Birth defects in cases of pregnancy
  • Overdose
  • Death

These things happen to teens — and pre-teens — each and every day. In 2009, there were nearly 4.6 million ER visits in the U.S. related to drugs, 19% of which involved patients in their teens.

How Do Drugs Affect the Brain?

Different drugs impact the brain in different ways. Certain substances cause the brain to release chemicals, such as dopamine, which plays a role in pleasure. Other substances block the brain from receiving certain signals, essentially numbing signals like pain. These effects tweak the brain in unnatural ways. Over time this can permanently alter the way your teen’s brain works. Drug use can have an especially profound effect on the brain during youth, because the brain is still growing rapidly and is malleable to change during this time.

When teens experience a high from drugs, it impacts the reward and pleasure centers of the brain, which typically respond to positive life experiences and produce happiness. With prolonged drug use, the brain can come to expect drugs as a reward, causing a physical demand for the sensation when they aren’t present. When this switch flips on, a drug dependence develops. In these instances, teens become depressed and difficult to please unless drugs are somehow involved. In many cases, heavy drug use — especially at a young age — can do permanent damage to the brain that can’t be undone, even if they eventually go sober.

What Are Signs That My Teen Is Using Drugs?

A telltale sign of a drug problem is paraphernalia — the tools or objects used to store, prepare or take drugs. Catching any of these in your teen’s bedroom, laundry, car or backpack should be a red flag.

Common objects associated with drug use include:

  • Pipes
  • Bongs
  • Rolling papers
  • Plastic baggies
  • Aluminum foil
  • Pill bottles
  • Needles
  • Lighters
  • Small glass vials
  • Empty aerosol bottles (spray paint, household cleaners, etc.)

You can also look for physical evidence of the drugs themselves, which is often left behind from being used. Bits of marijuana, white powder, individual pills and other curious materials should not be ignored. Remember not to assume the worst if you notice any one scrap of evidence, but it should certainly put you on alert.

Along with the more obvious signs, there are behavioral and physical signs you should pay attention to. While the teenage years are bound to bring about personality shifts and it’s not uncommon for young people to go through awkward phases or have a bad attitude from time to time, if you notice any combination of symptoms and suspect drugs might be in play, don’t let it pass by unaddressed.

Possible behavioral and physical signs of a drug problem can include:

  • Suspicious or troublesome behavior
  • Health issues, such as constant sickness
  • A change in appearance and/or hygiene, smell
  • Problems with school, work or authority
  • Financial trouble, asking for money or even stealing money
  • Neglecting responsibilities such as class or family
  • Hanging out with a new group of friends
  • Lying or being increasingly secretive about their life

How Can I Tell If My Teen Is Suffering From Withdrawal?

teen crouched against wall with face in handsWhen the human body becomes dependent on a drug, it will react violently when it doesn’t receive these drugs. This is called withdrawal. Withdrawal is a common result of teens attempting to escape their drug addictions.

Signs of drug withdrawal are especially violent when the body tries to rid itself of harder drugs. These symptoms might include:

  • Sickness or fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression

Don’t waste any time if you think your son or daughter is experiencing withdrawal. Get them medical attention. If they won’t admit their drug problem directly, the doctor can determine if an addiction is involved.

Is a Drug Problem Treatable?

A drug problem is treatable under the right conditions. Teen drug use is often, in lesser cases, a behavioral problem — a response to their stressful personal life or a product of curiosity and sensation-seeking. In other cases, it’s a deep-seated biological problem that can be tricky to overcome — casual use can quickly snowball into a much deeper issue. Approximately 2 million U.S. teens between the ages of 12 and 17 currently qualify as needing help for their substance problem. Tragically, only about 150,000 — less than 10% — get the help they need.

What works for your teen may be unique to them — and that’s okay. A drug habit can be difficult to break, but with the help of rehab professionals, together you can help them break away from drugs and get on the road to recovery.

Thousands of clinics and specially-trained practitioners offer treatment for teens battling drug abuse or addiction. Treatment options for substance abuse implement therapy, counseling, medication and other proven tools designed to retrain an addict to live without drugs. If you’ve done all you can, and your teen’s drug problem shows no signs of slowing, it may be time to consider professional treatment. Doctors and treatment specialists have spent decades working on and perfecting their methodologies and they can help addicts defeat their illness. While there’s no guarantee your son or daughter will respond well to rehab, research shows that teen drug addicts who receive treatment are far more likely to beat their addiction than those who don’t.

Does My Child Need Professional Treatment?

If you see signs that your child is abusing drugs or alcohol, you need to take action now. Too many times, we at The Recovery Village have spoken with brokenhearted parents who wished they had acted when they first noticed signs of potential substance abuse, before the problem spiraled into addiction. Avoid that outcome by taking steps today to stop this behavior in your teen now.

Your first step is to reach out to a professional. This could be your child’s doctor, guidance counselor, or one of our addiction specialists at The Recovery Village, whose help is free of charge and confidential. A professional can help you assess the situation, and determine any next steps that should be taken. If it turns out that your child needs help, a professional can go over substance abuse treatment options with you.

Don’t wait until tomorrow to give your child what they need today. Just call us — we can help you take it from there.

Questions? We have answers.

Our recovery advisors have more information about substance abuse, and adolescent treatment options.

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Teen Addiction was last modified: June 15th, 2017 by The Recovery Village